A World Without Split Ends

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One of the great advantages of working with riven material is that the grain direction of your boards becomes much less of a problem. With most riven pieces (that aren’t radically tapered), you can cut both ways on the piece with zero tear-out because the grain is dead straight.

I call this the “American Advantage” – this continent still has the big, straight trees that allow parts to be riven for chairs and even casework. And not only does the raw material affect the process, it also affects the tools. When you have dead-straight material, you can shave all your parts with a drawknife or a bevel-up spokeshave.

So what happens when you step out of the American chair tradition?

The process and the tools change. When I build American Welsh Stick Chairs I don’t use riven material – I use whatever I can find that is naturally twisted or straight to suit the chair parts I have in my mind. This stuff can be from the lumberyard – or your backyard hedge. It’s perfectly suitable material for a chair, but it doesn’t like a drawknife or a bevel-up spokeshave. And that’s because grain direction is a big problem when you use sawn or found material.

Personally, I fall back on cabinetmaking tools and techniques to deal with grain direction on my chair parts. When I use my bench planes for a finishing cut, I set the cap iron (aka chipbreaker or back iron) so it is only a hair away from the cutting edge. And I mean a hair – maybe .006”. That allows me to deal with arms, seats, legs and doublers that have gnarly grain.

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When I use a block plane, that means I need to set the mouth so it’s as fine as possible. For me, that means setting it so that the shaving gets wedged between the mouth and iron. And the next shaving pushes it out. That is tight.

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Using these techniques – a close-set breaker or a fine mouth – allow me to plane my parts without thinking about grain direction as much, if at all. So I can taper all my legs by planing from the foot to the tenon; I don’t have to every turn the leg around to plane the other way.

Yes, it takes some practice to get the breaker and the mouth in the right spot. But it’s no more work than learning to sharpen or wield a drawknife. It’s just a different approach.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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8 Responses to A World Without Split Ends

  1. adrianmakes says:

    It seems hard to reconcile the close set chip breaker or the tiny mouth with a cambered blade. I suppose there’s no need for a cambered blade when shaving chair legs, but I find it advantageous for larger surfaces. Is the high angle blade the only solution for grain reversals in this case?

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    • I think you are over-thinking, or think the tolerances are tighter than they are. Both approaches work with a cambered blade just fine. You can camber a chipbreaker (if you like) but I have not found it necessary.

      High angles work, too. All three approaches work just fine.

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  2. Dave says:

    Living in the suburbs of California I will likely never see riven stock let alone build a chair from it. I am happy to use kiln dried lumber… and when I use a spokeshave, inshave or travisher I just have to work differently. It may take me longer and I certainly wrestle with grain direction but I’m all too happy to be learning and succeeding.

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  3. Bill Morison says:

    Thank you for that clear description (you know you need to give it to me simply!). When I try to set the mouth that tightly, I seem to get jammed up. I’ll just keep at the adjustment until my block plane does what yours does. . .

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  4. Matt says:

    I’m intrigued by that first picture in this post. It appears to be a jig to help handplaning the facets of your stool (or chair) leg. Having just finished handplaning some legs for my High Staked Stool, a jig to help even up those 8 sides would be helpful. Would you elaborate?

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  5. Vince says:

    I thought you were lamenting the loss of your favorite 80’s band?

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  6. Vince says:

    You also need a perfectly flat plane bottom to get shavings like that.

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